Director: Robert Jabbaz
Notable Cast: Berant Zhu, Regina Lei, Ying-Ru Chen, Tzu-Chiang Wang, Tsai Chang-Hsien, Lan Wei-Hua, Chi-Min Chou
If there’s one film released this year that ought to create a divide amongst its viewers, it is most certainly The Sadness. Although comparisons are being made online to a comic series Crossed regarding its content, The Sadness is one of those films whose themes and execution are bound to fester under the skin in one way or another. If it isn’t for the visuals one is about to experience, then it’s the nihilistic streak in its themes that simmers underneath its frantic and abrasive surface. Either way, audiences may have trouble digesting what’s in store.
Conceptually, it’s as if director Robert Jabbaz took the idea of 28 Days Later, mixed it with The Crazies remake, and then proceeded to run it through Hong Kong Cat III lenses (a relatively notorious rating due to its use of graphic violence, sex, and absurdity for those new to the term) for two decades. The Sadness maintains this intriguing balance of classic “zombie” survival storytelling that just happens to feature some of the most brutal gore, violence, and sexual depravity on the screen in decades.
On the surface, The Sadness is that classic survival flick, where our two main protagonists - young couple Jim and Kat played by Berant Zhu and Regina Lei respectively, must attempt to find one another, survive, and make it out of the city alive when a new rampant virus consumes the population. The recent (and still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic plays a massive role in creating so much of the groundwork for The Sadness and it’s apparent early on that Jabbaz has never asked himself “is this too soon?” That’s the point. Quite frankly, it’s apparent that he’s also never asked himself “is that too far?” or “is this going to push viewers away?” And, again, that’s the point.
Jabbaz and his team have no qualms in pushing the film to extremes to garner a reaction from their audience. The Sadness is a film that has a lot to say and it’s using exploitative aspects of horror cinema to make those statements. The political and social queues are all here. These are not zombies that Jim and Kat have to deal with, similar to The Crazies, the virus pushes the infected toward a need for violence and sex in all of the worst ways possible.
As the film progresses and adds to the mixture, often taking assumptions about evil infected or zombie movies and twisting them around, it loves to jab in its social commentary. A major dump of (possibly unreliable) information from a scientist in the third act adds so much complication to the matter, including the fact that the infected will cry blood because their reasonable mind still exists underneath the animalistic brain that has consumed the body. And that’s from a scientist who quickly shows that he will do anything to learn more about how the virus has mutated. This movie is D.A.R.K. and it never hesitates to slither there.
Yet, there is a sense to the proceedings, beyond the general quest of the young man to find his love or the horrendous acts they witness and attempt to survive in the aftermath of the virus outbreak, that the nihilism and brutality of its sequences are embedded with just a hit of the blackest of black comedy. Whether it’s a Presidential address that goes horrifically wrong on television, a basketball court sequence of young infected thoroughly enjoying themselves, or the manner that the main antagonist towards Kat, deemed “The Businessman,” pursues her relentlessly to kill her through sex, the sheer audacity and absurdity of its dialogue, gore, and brashness of content also carries the sharpest tool in the film’s arsenal: satire.
For gore hounds, there’s plenty to see in this film, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, it decides to throw in medical equipment, dismemberment, blood orgies, and more. Hell, it’s not uncommon to see a solid knife killing in Asian cinema, but the slaughter that occurs via knife on the public transit train is enough to make some of the horror stalwarts lose a bit of color in their face. For the most part, the excessiveness of the brutality has been seen in cinema before and it will either work for viewers or immediately turn them away, but it’s the manner that The Sadness uses it for its reveals of plot, characters, or themes then matched with its (also brutal) pacing is what makes it feel even more visceral.
The Sadness will cut its audience in half. Viewers will either enjoy it for the audacity of its choices or be turned away for the same reason, but for me - it’s that political and social commentary underneath that makes this film work on a whole new level. It’s “gore galore, but wait there’s more” in some slyly effective ways. The performances are grounded until they no longer need to be, and the realism of its post-pandemic ideas are real fears for so many people every day. That means it’s never an easy watch. It’s not meant to be. Just having it titled The Sadness is an indicator of the intention it’s putting forward. This movie is vicious in so many ways and it does it without losing its soul. Considering some of the content one sees in this film, that’s a brilliant maneuver.